The story of the modern metropolis of Chennai may have begun over 400 years ago, with the arrival of the Portuguese, but the history of the region precedes its colonisation by several centuries, to somewhere between 500 BCE and 300 CE—what is famously known as the Sangam Period of Tamil Nadu. It was subsequently ruled by the mighty empires of the Deccan, including the Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas, and the Vijayanagara kingdom. Then in the beginning of the 16th century, Chennai as we’d come to know it, finally began to take shape. The Portuguese arrival was followed by the Dutch, French, and British, who built a fort and a trading post in the little fishing village of Madrasapattinam, which lent the city its first name—Madras. Today, Chennai is a buzzing city of glorious beaches by the Bay of Bengal, monuments, and relics that stand as testament to time and people who preserve age-old traditions through their arts, culture, food, and way of life. By Satarupa Paul
Chennai houses nearly 2,467 heritage buildings within its metropolitan area—the highest within any city limit in India.
The first English fortress built by the British-led East India Company in India in 1639, Fort St. George is the focal point around which the city of Chennai evolved. Today, the compound houses the state assembly, a museum and the St. Mary’s Church—the oldest Anglican church in India. The imposing red structure of Madras High Court is the second largest judicial building in the world, while the all-white Ripon Building is a fine example of Neoclassical architecture. Walks conducted by initiatives such as Story Trails and 5 Senses Walks are ideal to explore these structures.
The long coastline of Chennai along the Bay of Bengal ensures the existence of several beautiful beaches such as Marina Beach and Elliot’s Beach. The Guindy National Park and Theosophical Society Garden are other natural sites worth spending some time at.
There are numerous opportunities for day trips from Chennai. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mahabalipuram, located 60 km away, has 400 monuments built during the Pallava dynasty. Kanchipuram, 72 km away, is another heritage city that’s also famous for its handwoven Kanjeevaram silk saris. Try to strike a deal with a local weaver and shop for a classic creation.
Dedicated to Hindu god Shiva, the 7th-century Kapaleeshwarar Temple complex houses numerous shrines and prayer halls built in the Dravidian architectural style. Located on the shores of Elliot’s Beach is the Ashtalakshmi Temple, depicting eight forms of Hindu goddess Lakshmi. The nine sanctorums are depicted in such a way that visitors can visit all the shrines without stepping over any of the sanctorums. The St. Thomas Cathedral Basilica, aka San Thome Church, was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century over the tomb of Saint Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ. It was rebuilt by the British in a stunning neo-Gothic style that stands today. One of the largest mosques in India, the Thousand Lights Mosque is a multi-domed structure with a prayer hall that, according to legend, used to be illuminated by a thousand oil lamps in the past.
The open-air Dakshinachitra is a living heritage museum, which lends a window to South India’s heritage and culture. The Cholamandal Artists’ Village is credited for the Madras Movement of Art that brought modernism to art in the region. It hosts over 20 resident artists and houses a permanent exhibition of paintings, terracotta, stone, and metal sculptures as well as other handicrafts. Valluvar Kottam was built in the honour of Tamil poet, Valluvar, and is home to the Kural Manimandapam, where all the 1,330 couplets of Kural literature are inscribed. Historic libraries such as Connemara Public Library and Anna Centenary Library are testament to the city’s love for literature.
Chennai has an indigenous food culture that’s predominantly vegetarian, but it’s also home to chic cafes, trendy pubs, and classy dine-outs that serve a variety of world cuisines.
There’s no better way to tap a city’s culinary pulse than to try out some local delicacies. Murugan Idli Shop was started as a small, family-run a air, and now has branches even in Singapore and London. Their speciality includes idlis, uthapam, and paniyaram. The holein-the-wall Rayar ’s Mess is another popular joint, which serves hearty snacks such as pongal, dosa and vada, all of which should be washed down with a cup of filter kaapi (coffee).
The upscale Pan Asian restaurant at ITC Grand Chola serves an incredible array of seafood dishes and global cuisines. For a more romantic experience, make a reservation at the rooftop Upper Deck at Taj Fisherman’s Cove Resort & Spa and enjoy views of Covelong Beach and the Bay of Bengal.
One of the most popular places to hang out in Chennai is at the city outpost of the British-style pub chain called 10 Downing Street. Located in the bustling T Nagar area, 10 DS, as it’s lovingly nicknamed, offers a range of cocktails and Western fare in a typical British pub setting of warm wooden interiors, with checkered tiles, and booth seating. The venue also hosts theme parties with resident DJs spinning the disks.
From silk saris to handcrafted souvenirs, there’s something for everyone wishing to indulge in some retail therapy.
The most sought-after variant of silk saris, Kanjeevaram saris are woven from pure mulberry silk thread, and the designs are inspired by scriptures of South Indian temples. In a genuine Kanjeevaram sari, the body and border are woven separately and then interlocked together. The joint is woven so strongly that even if the sari tears, the border will not detach. Nalli is the tallest institution when it comes to silk saris anywhere in India.
Sweets, Savouries and Filter Coffee
With over 140 outlets across India, Adyar Ananda Bhavan offers a mindboggling range of local sweets and savouries such as Mysore pak, burfi, murukku, thattai. One cannot possibly leave Chennai without buying at least a pack or two of filter coffee powder as souvenirs for friends. Leo is a premier retailer of not just filter coffee, but espresso beans, chicory powder, and filter coffee equipment as well.
With branches in Besant Nagar and Nungambakkam, Naturally Auroville stocks products handmade in the spiritual commune of Auroville in Puducherry. Expect earthy, soulful items such as scented candles, ceramic cups, kokum butter soap bars, gluten-free vegan cookies and much more. Run by the Isha Foundation, Isha Life is another such boutique store in Mylapore that sells a range of body care products, home decor and fragrances, yoga wear, as well as copper ware bottles, jugs, and tumbler sets.